Linda Lorenza

Could this one thing make students love school again?

School refusal has been labelled a “national trend” by the Senate education committee. Primary and secondary children are not attending school and it is not because of cold symptoms or COVID. The problem of school refusal is international. The Dutch program “Knowing What Works” identifies interventions that work in helping young people who struggle with attending school. The report claims that education is essential to young people’s development and that the interaction between the service providers, such as psychologists, the student’s parent and teachers contributed positively to the student’s capacity to return to school. In Australia, school refusal is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained considerable attention following the impact of the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 shutdown periods on our school students. The Productivity Commission reported that the national primary school attendance rate was 87.8 per cent in 2022, a 4.5 per cent drop from 2021. Furthermore, the Australian Professional Teacher’s Association submission stated that “a lot more time today is spent on student wellbeing issues than even five years ago” (p143).

There is no doubt that primary school-aged children’s socialisation has been hampered by the COVID lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021. The impact of isolation on the mental health and wellbeing of students is a prime concern. During the COVID lockdowns in Australia in 2020 and 2021 many families were forced to stay home and somehow work out how to learn online. For families in lockdown routine was difficult and surviving day to day became the priority. Students struggled with the “lack of face-to-face connection with teachers … felt incredibly disconnected and isolated from peers” (p7). The impact on parents’ own mental health and coping capacity cannot be underestimated. For many children the world became “frightening” with children displaying symptoms of fear, worry and sadness.

Worldwide people turned to some form of creativity as a way to cope and to connect. View from my window attracted 3.8 million members on facebook. Time reported that TikTok became the “uncontested social media platform” for all ages with dance challenges. Teachers innovated, developing “various ideas to engage students whilst teaching them and attempting to make learning fun for them which would help assist their want to learn.”(p13).

Primary arts teachers devised some amazing learning activities that unified and inspired their students and their families. Household items became art-making materials, everyday clothes became costumes and any space in the house or garden became a self-tape studio for children to make videos to share with their peers. But for teachers monitoring student engagement online was prohibitive. They could not see immediate feedback through students’ body language and facial expressions, “you did not know if the students were actually there, listening and working” (Ziebell & Roberston, 2021, p17). Teachers as well as students missed the social interaction of learning at school.

State and Territory education authorities provided supporting materials, such as Queensland Department of Education’s fact sheets to help parents support their children returning to school, highlighting the importance of routine and planning for the day ahead. The Federal government launched the world’s first National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy in October 2021. In their 2021 study, Ziebell and Robertson found that respondents in primary schools were a little more positive about the level of support for students than their secondary school respondents. In primary schools, greater emphasis was placed on student wellbeing than on maintain academic standards. But now in 2023 school refusal and student mental health and well-being is of continued concern.

Returning to school for both students and teachers has meant readjustment to face-to-face learning and to functioning within the whole school environment. Queensland independent school primary teachers in Ziebell and Roberston’s study have focussed on “rebuilding rapport with their students”(p20) but the return to school in NSW teachers were concerned that the disruption to transition points in schooling such as commencing school, completing Year 6, starting secondary school, will have ongoing negative effects on students (Fray et al., 2022). Additionally, in the first year of returning to school, limitations on extra-curricular activities such as performance and public speaking, as well as inter-year mingling for peer-support stifled students’ socialisation within the school. These were activities students looked forward to. NSW teachers noted behaviour issues such as anxiety, frustration, aggression and some reported evidence of self-harm. Teachers attributed poor social interaction among students on their return to school to the lack of face-to-face contact they had with peers during lockdown (Fray et al., 2022, p.9).

The impact of lockdowns on students’ academic achievement has received much attention, but  teachers experience the day to day behaviours which are a result of lack of social contact: increases in challenging behaviour, tired and fatigued students, and students’ lower capacity to engage in learning upon return to the classroom (Fray et al, 2022, p10).

The Emerging Priorities Program funds projects that assist school communities to respond to emerging priorities in school education, including to meet the ongoing challenges of COVID-19. An examination of primary student, teacher and parent experiences of arts learning online during COVID-19 lockdown, is examining primary arts learning online. By listening to primary students, teachers’ and parents’ recollections of arts learning online, the study will identify evidence of the Personal and Social capability and develop examples of practice intended to support teachers and students returning to school.The national survey is open now for teachers, students and parents who were connected with primary schools in 2020 and 2021.

Dr Linda Lorenza is a qualitative researcher and arts practitioner whose interests are in the performing arts, arts education, and applied arts in health and rehabilitation contexts. She is Head of Course for the Bachelor of Theatre and teaches theatre, acting and drama. Lorenza is a chief investigator, with Don Carter, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.

Dr Don Carter is a senior lecturer in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, he specialises in working with teachers to investigate innovative writing pedagogies to improve student performance and outcomes across the curriculum. Carter is a chief investigator, with Linda Lorenza, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.

Not every principal will love the arts but every arts teacher does. They need support

Australians have leapt online to participate in arts events. More than 30% of Australians have engaged with arts events online and more than 40% have participated in some form of art-making in any of the artforms, dance, drama ,music, media art or visual arts.

That shows the Australian appetite for arts of all kinds.  But what happens at a school level?  The arts is one of the eight learning areas in the Australian Curriculum. While each state and territory has a particular approach to how the curriculum is put into place, schools are best placed to determine how to deliver the arts to their students.

 Ultimately the school principal decides the allocation of time and resources for learning areas.

 Not every principal is going to love the arts, but every arts teacher does. High-quality arts occurs when students and teachers share the tools of creation and this collaborative approach cultivates the student’s individuality rather than focusing on fulfilling pre-specified outcomes. I undertook case study research of eight NSW Specialist arts teachers. These teachers identified that it was not actually the curriculum but other factors within the school which influenced how the arts were positioned.

The values held by the school are led by the school principal who must fulfil required accountability requirements from NAPLAN to mandated curriculum, in addition to managing the day to day running of the school. The principal may be focused on the outside perception of the school, evident in the number of student enrolments, NAPLAN ranking on the My School website and other external high stakes test results such as the Year 12 school completion rankings. Yet, the principal could be focussed on the internal workings of the school including the students’ learning experiences, teacher autonomy and a sense of community within the school.

Six factors were associated with the principal’s focus which determined the place of arts education within the school: student numbers; curriculum regulation; resources allocation; teacher autonomy; student autonomy and interest and a culture of community. Within these factors I found that the teacher’s anecdotes identified if the principal held an outward focus on the public perception of the school or an inward focus on the student learning experience.

Student enrolments and curriculum regulation

Outward focussed leadership centred upon numbers of students enrolled in the school or within a subject.

One teacher reported that in one year group, French was timetabled for just four students, but although ten students wished to enrol in it, drama was not timetabled as the school had set a minimum quota of twelve students.

 Curriculum regulation in NSW also played into this situation as languages are mandated in years 7 and 8 but drama is not. Schools may allocate lower priority to learning areas that are not directly associated with high stakes testing such as NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate. Independent school teachers in my study noted that their principals considered the My School profile of the school contributed to public perception of the school.

By contrast, two other teachers reported high levels of student participation in the arts supported by their respective principals who were inwardly focussed on the student experience. Creativity was valued in learning at one school where the principal recognised that students who participated in the arts achieved top academic results across learning areas. At the other, a primary school, students were busy with rehearsals for the musical production as well as class activities leaving no time for behavioural issues. Additionally public perception of the school was enhanced through the whole school musical production.

Resources allocation

Timetabling the arts within the school day, provision of physical resources such as paint, instruments, suitable space and allocation of specialist arts teachers contribute to positive arts experiences within the school.

Teacher autonomy

Teachers with strong subject-knowledge and belief in their students’ capacity continue to teach the arts against the odds within their schools. But collaboration and collegiality among teachers across learning areas in a school is more conducive to teacher career satisfaction and job longevity.

Student autonomy and interest

The random allocation of arts curriculum to teachers who are not confident to teach the arts may limit the learning that takes place and potentially make the classroom boring for students. Students need to have control over their learning, and particularly in the arts students will develop their creativity, risk taking and collaborative problem solving. These serve to inspire the students’ interest. But, expectations of outcomes limit the students’ view and force them to measure themselves against pre-specified outcomes. In the arts students learn through making mistakes . Curriculum interpretation that focusses on only on the final outcome, misses the meaningful learning that actually occurs in the process of making the artwork or performance.

A culture of community

Teachers in this study reported a range of arts activities in their schools that created a culture of community. One regional teacher ran a school holiday drama camp which gave more isolated students the opportunity to connect with peers. Teachers reported that through their participation in the arts students felt they were contributing to and were part of a larger community.

The student experience is more than curriculum

The inclusion of the arts in the Australian curriculum legitimises it as a learning area. As teachers in my study have reported, it is factors outside the curriculum that ultimately determine the place of the arts within the school. High stakes testing and the MySchool website do not provide a true three-dimensional picture of the student experience in any school. School principals need to focus on the students’ learning experiences within the school. Additionally, teachers need to buy into curriculum reform to ensure positive action.

And principals should get behind their hard working staff.

Linda Lorenza has a PhD in arts education and curriculum policy and is head of course for CQUniversity’s Bachelor of Theatre degree, lecturing in acting and theatre studies. She is recognised for her education work in the Australian arts industry at Bell Shakespeare, where she was involved in the Theatrespace longitudinal research study into the influences on young people’s attendance at theatre; and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Her recent research includes teachers’ responses to curriculum change in the arts.